Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector

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There are no words…

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.

A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.

What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?

Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.

On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.

I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.

Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.

I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.

Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.

All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.

If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.


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What’s In A Name?

It surprises many people I encounter for the first time, but I am actually relatively new to the ‘soapbox’ sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been opinionated (as my family will, I’m sure, readily attest to), but it was generally petty childish strops over whether it was my turn or my brother’s to do the washing up. No, developing opinions about things which actually affect people’s lives in a significant way is a fairly recent thing for me (and I’ve certainly got a long way to go yet in terms of putting forward watertight arguments, which is why I’m going to stick for the most part just to talking about my own experiences on this blog).

What all of this means, though, is that terms like ‘lived experience’, ‘self-identify’, ‘survivor’, ‘liberation’, ‘privilege’ and so on are all phrases that I used to turn my nose up at as psychologists’ politically correct namby-pamby. Even now, certain terms I feel more comfortable with than others. I’m not entirely sure what my turning point was, but I guess that dating a pseudo-Communist for a few years, going to a pretty liberally-minded university (which is funny, given that it’s a Jesuit place!), and being ‘BFFs’ (her word, not mine) with the biggest soapbox-er of them all will all have an effect. Anyway, the long and short of it is that I basically had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

Something that was probably a fairly large turning point in my involvement with liberation issues was being told at one point during my first year of university by the aforementioned BFF that I was a bigot. The context was a conversation about gender self-identification, and I had just expressed the view that if a person is assigned a gender at birth, based upon their genitalia, they are wrong to question/challenge that, unless they were born a hermaphrodite (in which case the doctors had a 50/50 chance and could have guessed wrongly). Had the ‘bigot’ criticism come from anyone other than her, I would probably have got offended, got annoyed, and then brushed it off, thinking ‘how could I, of all people, be called a bigot? I’m really open-minded!’ Given the circumstances, though, it planted a little seed in my mind, and after a couple of years of meeting people at university and in general life, I came to realise gradually how important self-identification (not just in terms of gender, but also disability, sexuality, ethnicity and so on) really is. No one has the right to look at a person and judge based on what they think they can see in front of them how that person feels about themselves. People looking at me see no disability – which is hardly surprising, given that it’s an invisible disability – and if I had left it to what they see, I’d never had completed a university degree. Even more, I’ve had instances in the past where people have deemed my RSI as ‘not a proper disability’ – presumably because they can’t see a physical aid or physical abnormality – and my reaction has been to ask them whether they would like to live with it for a day and then come back to me to repeat what they’ve said. That’s obviously different to the discrimination suffered by the trans* community, but it helped me to empathise much more with the notion of ‘self-identification’. Happily, I don’t think I would be likely to be called a bigot anymore, at least not for something like that!

My relationship with the term ‘survivor’ is an interesting one. I only actually discovered about two years ago that there is a trend among people who have experienced sexual abuse or violence to refer to themselves as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’, and it’s not one that I’ve ever fully comfortably adopted. On the rare occasions that I would speak about my own childhood experiences, I would call myself a ‘victim’ of sexual abuse, and not feel uncomfortable with that at all; now, I tend to use the terms interchangeably when referring to my own experiences, but I make a point of using ‘survivor’ if I’m talking about others with similar experiences. From a purely personal point of view, I feel like ‘survivor’ makes what I went through sound more dramatic than it was, because it doesn’t even compare with what some women survive. The issue there is that I wouldn’t say that other 9 year old girls molested by a family guest and then blamed for that abuse by the legal system experienced something negligible, but I guess there’s still a bit of a wall in my mind behind which I’ve pushed quite a lot of that entire episode; perhaps if I confront the experiences further, maybe even stop blaming myself for what happened (thanks a bundle, rape culture!), my opinion on the ‘victim’ vs. ‘survivor’ debate will change as well.

Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, London – the ultimate destination for soapbox-ers everwhere!

I really like ‘lived experience’, because I feel that it gives a really powerful tool for being able to refer to genuine and insightful accounts of any form of discrimination, minority status or general feeling of difference. One of the modules I was forced into studying at university was on hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation and understanding, and it never made any sense to me at all. (Sorry Ahmad. I wasn’t the best of students in that class…) Something that I hadn’t realised would stick with me, though, was the idea (I think from Gamader, or ‘Gadamerde’, as I called him) that one cannot detach one’s experiences from the way in which one interprets anything, because they will always play a part consciously or subconsciously, however hard one tries to be detached and impartial. Having recognised that personal experiences will colour personal judgement, the fact that they then do is not such an issue, because the person has been upfront about holding such views/biases. That seems to rub along quite nicely with the emphasis placed on lived experience, because one of the major challenges put to the idea of lived experience (or people who ‘rant’ from that perspective) is that we allow our perceptions of discrimination or marginalisation to ‘taint’ our views or make us ‘bitter’. Well, as long as we’re upfront about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, perhaps what we can bring to the table is an account which, yes, may be biased, but will show you things you may never have thought about. I have never lived in absolute or even full relative poverty, or as a person of colour, so I could never interpret the world through the same lenses as someone with a lived experience of either of those things, but through listening to their opinions and accepting those as containing valid bias, I can come to empathise.

Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.

This last one brings me quite nicely round to the name of my blog. Choosing a blog name is an important decision, because it sets the tone of the whole thing and needs to be engaging enough to make it jump out on a web search. The real challenge is that I have a tendency to come up with dreadful dreadful puns that make people tempted to lock me in a cupboard with only an MP3 player loaded with Blink 182 and Britney Spears, so I wanted to avoid that. The thing that seemed most important to me was to make sure that it was obviously about lived experience, because that’s what I feel is the selling point of this blog. When I did a preliminary search on Google for blogs about lived experience, I found someone who’d done a post criticising the term, because ‘all experience is by definition lived’, and that got me thinking. I suppose that, yes, all experience is lived, but the point is that there is a person living those experiences and then speaking about them. It’s only through the fact that people live those experiences that society can hopefully arrive at a time when people are no longer living those experiences. The speaking about them is the key part, which is what my blog aims to do. On a more personal note, the name ‘Experience Is To Be Lived’ is intended to be a constant reminder to myself that, however dark things get as a result of my depression, experience is to be lived. For now, however bad things may sometimes seem, I need to try to keep my head up, because, I hope, one day they will be better. Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.

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A Series of Fortunate Events

A few days ago, someone I admire very much posted an article about her experiences as a student with hearing loss. When I started to explore the website it appeared on, it came as a little bit of a surprise to me to realise that of the six categories of minority or liberation group covered by the website, I could self-identify into five. I’d already noticed that my diversity monitoring forms are usually slightly more ‘interesting’ than most people’s, but this was something pretty stark staring me in the face!

Liberate Yourself homepage, dedicated to the lived experiences of liberation students.

That evening, I was having a conversation with another friend I have huge admiration for, and I was speaking to her about this apparent ‘collection’ of minority identities I seem to have. Having reflected a little more on it, I’d come to the conclusion that I have at least six such identities (or even seven in situations where being under 25 can be a disadvantage), but when she went on to guess them, she missed two and picked up on one or two more of which I hadn’t really thought.

Still ruminating on this, the following morning I headed off to a learning day for Charityworks, the charity management graduate scheme I am on. The afternoon, it turned out, was a workshop on equality and diversity in the workplace, given by Jordana Ramalho, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s (a charity well-known for its commitment to diversity). Timely! Not only did those two-and-a-half hours really open my eyes to issues I’d never fully contemplated before, but they also gave me another personal awakening. Divided at one point into six groups, we were given a number of different minority/liberation group to reflect upon, discussing the forms of discrimination such people could experience in the workplace and how, as managers, we could tackle such situations. When I heard the six categories, sure enough – I have some extent of lived experience in each.

All of this got me thinking and reflecting on how I might be able to put my experiences to use in breaking some of the silence surrounding certain forms of discrimination in wider society, opening channels of dialogue regarding topics that people might regard as taboo. I ‘ummm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed a little over creating this blog, wondering if some of what I have to say on certain topics might be too personal or unsuitable for broadcasting publicly on this wonderful Internetland, but I concluded that the more people speak about such things, the less taboo they will seem.

You will eventually find on this blog, then, very personal reflections on a range of topics, covering what it is to be a young, bisexual, practising Jewish woman with an invisible physical disability and clinical depression, who is a child survivor of sexual abuse and who lost her mother before the age of 21, but also thoughts on the many ways in which I experience privilege. The hope is to be able to relate all of this to how minority status is approached in wider society. Please note that there could be a possibility of triggers throughout what I may write, but I tend to write in a pretty lighthearted style, so I’ll want to avoid the heavy triggering material as much as possible anyway!

Happy reading! 😛